Louie has had some exceptional guest stars over the years — Parker Posey, Robin Williams, and Melissa Leo, who won an Emmy for her role — and we get another one this week, with film veteran Michael Rapaport playing Lenny, an obnoxious cop who used to date Louie’s sister and latches onto him after a chance run-in on the street. Lenny’s the kind of guy who’s constantly punching you in the shoulder and insults you so much, you wonder why you’re hanging out with him… and Louie addresses that head-on.
We got on the phone with Rapaport, who’ll be back on TV this summer in TNT’s 1960s cop show Public Morals, to chat about his Louie character (who he calls “a violator of your personal being”), how the best writers are the ones who encourage you to improvise, and how working with series star/writer/director Louis C.K. reminded him of his time shooting films with Woody Allen. (High praise, indeed.)
You’re a New York guy, and Louis C.K. is a New York guy, so it’s almost surprising you haven’t been on the show already. Had your paths crossed before?
No, I actually never met him until I did this show. So it was fun meeting him, and it was fun doing the show. I had a really good time doing it.
Had you seen the show at all?
I had watched it a little bit. To be honest with you, I hadn’t watched it that much. But I had seen his stand-up, and I’m very familiar with who he is. But I hadn’t seen the show that much. Which, for me, I prefer going into something without preconceived notions or anything like that. I think it’s beneficial.
I got the script, which I really liked. And then three days later, I came to New York and I was shooting. It was just very, very well-written. It felt like a short play. The writing was really, really good. And I loved the part, and I loved the tone of the script. For me, whenever a character or a story has comedy and drama in one, that’s my sweet spot. I like that. That’s exciting to me. His writing is very spot-on. His writing is kind of actor-proof.
You play this cop character, Lenny, who’s really annoying. He comes on too strong; he’s the kind of guy who likes to embarrass his friends in public. We all know guys like this, right?
Oh yeah, I know guys like this. I get approached by guys like that. So yeah, I referenced some people that I know. One person in particular that kind of insults you without, I think, meaning to insult you. He’s just all up in your space, in your area. Not just physically, but emotionally. A violator of your personal being.
And Lenny’s a cop, too, so he’s able to be even more invasive. He frisks Louie… he even points a gun at him as a joke.
Yeah, he’s definitely obnoxious and overbearing. But I don’t think intentionally bad. Not somebody you’d want to be around, but I definitely felt like there was a sweetness to him that was there. It’s just, he doesn’t know how to articulate that or show that. You know, you have to try to find the humanity in a character. Even somebody like this. When you’re playing it, you have to find the decency in the character. Because he doesn’t look at himself as obnoxious, or overbearing. He doesn’t think those things about himself.
That’s the great thing about Louie: It digs deeper than that, and really gets at who this guy is. He’s lonely; he’s bitter; he’s depressed. It’s not even necessarily going for laughs. It’s just real.
Yeah, it’s very real. And you know, the way [Louis C.K.] directs you, he really has an understanding of actors. He really has an understanding of the tone that he wants, of the jokes and how he wants them to land. He has a really good combination of, he’s very actor-friendly, but also very conscious and aware of the technical aspects of how he wants things to look. But it’s not in a geeky way. It’s very layman’s terms. But obviously, he understands the feel of the scenes he’s trying to do.
I was very impressed by that. Just hearing the way he spoke to the lighting people and the [director of photography] — he’s very articulate, but in a very everyman sort of way. Because I’m interested in that stuff. I’m interested on how people articulate themselves in that way, and he does it in a really accessible way.
Yeah, you’re a filmmaker as well. So it had to be educational watching Louis not only act with you, but write and direct at the same time.
Yeah, it’s very impressive, just in terms of the end product. But it’s also impressive, just in terms of taking on those three things and doing them sort of seamlessly, but also being a collaborative person. You know, the closest experience that I could compare it to was working with Woody Allen. Because the writing is very good, it’s one person’s voice, it’s definitely one person in control, but it’s not run like a dictatorship in any way. He’s very open, and it’s the same with Woody Allen. He’s kind of the master of that.
And although the writing’s very good, he doesn’t make you married to everything. Most of the time, really good writers will encourage you to not say their writing, if you can believe that. Really good writers are comfortable hiring people who are going to bring something to the page and not feel intimidated by that.
So you were able to improvise a little bit?
A little bit. I didn’t need to, because the writing was so good. But you know, you add things and repeat things and do a little alteration. But he’s not on you about being spot-on. Mostly, network television — particularly sitcoms and dramas I’ve done that are not that good — and bad studio films are the only places where you’re required to say every line. So it’s weird, because they’re putting out the worst product, but they’re married to every single thing that’s on the page, because of their own insecurity. But those are the places where you don’t have freedom.
I love that scene when Louie finally tells Lenny off, how he’s not easy to be around, how he’s actually hurting Louie when he’s hitting him. It felt like a really honest moment, and one you don’t have a lot in real life with this type of guy.
Yeah, I really liked that scene, and those lines when he’s articulating himself to my character. Honestly, it was really one of the best experiences I’ve had as an actor. I really had a great time. It was short, but very sweet. It was a very fulfilling thing to do. Like, I felt elation doing it, and it felt exciting when I finished working. I had that very good creative feeling doing it. And to me, that’s the most rewarding thing to get: when you have that elation as an actor.
It kind of felt like a one-off, but do you think Lenny might come back on a future episode?
I mean, I’m ready to go. If Louis comes up with something, I would do it in a heartbeat. I would love to work with him again. I’m a big, big fan now. Like I said, I was a fan before, but he really gave me a good opportunity to do something I’m really proud of.
Louie airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. on FX.